Russell Holland of Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. was a corporal in the 5th Marine Division on Feb. 19, 1945, when his unit went ashore on the first day of the battle for Iwo Jima. It was one of the major battles in the Pacific during the closing months of World War II.
“I went in somewhere around 11 a.m. It was complete chaos on the beach,” the 80-year-old man said. “At Iwo Jima the Japanese had a different plan. They let us all come ashore and then they opened up.
“You had to get off the beach or you were dead. Our wounded were all over the beach and they were being killed by shrapnel as they laid there. We were being swept by machine-gun fire, and they were dropping mortars and artillery rounds on us,” he said.
“I crawled across the beach and up over the terraces of black sand. There was no vegetation on this part of the island,” Holland said. “It had all been bombed out by our planes or by naval gunfire. The enemy was hidden away in caves and pillboxes.”
The 5th Marine Division’s objective was taking the south end of the 8-square-mile island and Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the atoll. It was hardly a quarter-mile from the black volcanic beach where the Leathernecks landed on the white sandy beach on the far side of the island. But it was a long, deadly fight to get there that first day.
“We fought our way across to the far beach, but the Japanese ran us back almost to the beach, where we landed by nightfall. Japanese attackers came from around the base of Suribachi and attacked us,” he said. “There was heavy fire coming from every direction. People were dying every minute as we took fire from enemy artillery and mortars hidden in Suribachi.”
Part of the 5th Marine Division was assigned to capture the mountain and place an American flag on its top. Holland ‘s battalion was sent north up the island to take the two airfields, the primary reason for capturing the volcanic island.
“By nightfall that first day I was in a foxhole at the base of Suribachi. It was rough going. Sometimes we only moved 100 yards in a day and sometimes it was less than that.
“It started raining on the second day and it rained steadily for three days, as I recall. This made things worse because your rifle would get all jammed up with sand,” he said. “On the fourth day the rain stopped and it never rained again while we were there.”
The other thing Holland vividly remembers that took place early in the battle was the raising of a small American flag atop Suribachi on Feb. 23. This was the first flag raising, not the one captured by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal that became the most reproduced picture of World War II and the basis for the bronze Marine Corps memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“We weren’t far from the base of Suribachi when the first flag went up. Everybody on the ground started screaming and yelling and the ships offshore began blowing their whistles,” he said. “We thought at the time the battle would be over pretty soon. We didn’t realize it was just beginning.”
Day after day the Marines of the 5th Division inched their way northward. They were subjected to withering enemy fire from all directions. The worst part about it was they couldn’t see the enemy, Holland said.
“I guess we were on the island for three days before I ever saw a Japanese soldier. They would pop up out of a hole and shoot, then they’d disappear and pop up out of another hole behind you and shoot again,” Holland said.
By late March, when the 5th Marine Division finally took the north end of the island away from the Japanese, less than half of Holland’s company that had hit the beach with him 36 days earlier were still on the line fighting. Most of the Marines in his company had been killed or wounded.
Miraculously Holland received only a small shrapnel wound to one hand. He took a pair of pliers and pulled out the piece of steel that lodged between the fingers of his left hand and went on fighting.
“Even before the island was secured, damaged B-29 bombers began landing on the runways,” he said. “The first bomber came in and crash landed, but the crew was saved.”
Iwo Jima was approximately 700 miles from Tokyo. B-29s from the 20th Air Force were flying round trips off Tinian Island some 1,400 miles from Tokyo. With Iwo Jima controlled by U.S. Marines, damaged bombers had a much better chance of reaching Iwo than Tinian. Thousands of bomber crews survived their bombing runs over Japan because they could make emergency landings on Iwo by March 1945.
“The last day we were on Iwo Jima, they told us we had to walk back to the beach so we could be picked up by landing craft and taken back to our ships offshore. I had eaten some canned fish I found in a cave and was sick as I could be,” Holland said. “This big ole’ corpsman with a handlebar mustache walked over to me and started to pick me up and put me in the landing craft.
“‘You put your hands on me and I’ll shoot you’ I said. ‘I walked in here and I’m gonna walk off,’ I told him, and I did. Then I went to his sickbay, and he took care of me.”
Sitting at his dining room table in his fashionable canal-front Punta Gorda Isles home with his fiberglass outboard hanging from davits along the outback yard seawall, the old Marine said more than 60 years later, “I didn’t do anything spectacular at Iwo Jima. I just stayed alive.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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Russell Francis Holland , 83, of Punta Gorda, Fla., died Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008, at his residence.
He was born May 22, 1925, in Surry, Va., to Reginald Dennis and Lelia Frances (nee Scott) Holland .
Upon graduation from Hampton High School in Hampton, Va., Russell enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and became a member of the Marine Corps Fifth Division, fighting in the battle of Iwo Jima. After the war, he settled in the Washington, D.C., area and became a budget analyst for the Department of the Navy. Upon retirement, Russell and his wife, Marietta, moved to Punta Gorda from Annandale, Va., in 1983. He was a member of First United Methodist Church of Punta Gorda, the Marine Corps League Detachment 756 of Charlotte County, Fla., and B.P.O. Elks Lodge 2606 in Punta Gorda, and member and past commander of the Peace River Sail and Power Squadron.
He is survived by two sons, Jerry (Jo) Holland of Stafford, Va., and Michael (Linda) Holland of Ashburn, Va.; four grandchildren, Laura Holland of Alexandria, Va., Sarah Holland of Stratford Hall, Va., Ashley Holland of Parkersburg, W.Va., and Justin Klunk of Baltimore, Md.; and two sisters, Louise DeBolt of Yorktown, Va., and Margaret Parrish of Hampton. Russell was preceded in death by his loving wife of 53 years, Marietta.
Graveside services with military honors by the U.S. Marine Corps, and burial, will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008, at Quantico National Cemetery in Triangle, Va.
Memorial contributions in Russell ‘s name are suggested to Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte County, P.O. Box 496088, Port Charlotte, FL 33949-6088; or the Marine Corps League Detachment 756 of Charlotte County, P.O. Box 511948, Punta Gorda, FL 33951-1948. Friends may visit online at http://www.robersonfh.com to sign the guest book and extend condolences to the family.
Arrangements are by Roberson Funeral Home & Crematory, Punta Gorda Chapel.